We have more orchestras with better-trained musicians than ever. Yet these marvels of precision bleed anxiety over the future. Most of that anxiety centers on revenue. In my view, possibly because of our focus on commerce, the artistic product needs reinvention. Orchestras are like General Motors in the early 70s, still humming along but with the seeds of destruction long sown.
Over the next ten days I’ll list ten things I believe audiences don’t get from their orchestras. While I’ve already made up that list, please feel free to add your own things.
1. Art (Last Word, for September 2)
The art of music.
Clive Gillinson, formerly of the London Symphony Orchestra and now at Carnegie Hall, says, “Follow the music.”
Over the last two years orchestras have cut costs repeatedly and deeply. Let’s cut costs, not ambitions.
Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center and The Art of the Turnaround reminds us constantly to plan meaningful artistic projects rather than get caught up in the short term. With today’s financial pressures his advice is more important than ever.
Look at the excitement this year when the New York Philharmonic staged György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Our audiences hunger for meaning. Let’s create it for them. That’s our mission.
2. Energy (Word for September 1)
I’ve written below under Showmanship how disheartening it is to see bored musicians sitting back in their chairs, not giving themselves fully to the music and the audience. Classical music concerts also show a lack of energy in their pacing, disregarding the value of an audience’s time.
- Stage speeches, once a rarity, now are an epidemic. Last week I heard a performance begin thirty minutes late due to a slow start and a succession of speeches. The music is our offering, our product, our art. Starting with a speech delays that art in deference to cant.
- At many orchestras the concert begins five minutes after the stated time. Audiences have five minutes of dead time to begin the concert; how does that help them experience the music? This practice is justified by reducing the number of latecomers. Indeed, latecomers disturb the audience when they’re seated, and they get angry when they miss part of the performance. Yet it’s exciting at the Metropolitan Opera when the chandeliers are raised promptly and the performance begins; surely audiences in other cities have an easier time getting to the hall at the appointed hour.
- Another common practice is to ring chimes to signal the performance is about to start long before needed. The audience waits a long time for the convenience of the orchestra, twice in each concert.
- At a performance by the New York Philharmonic I was impressed how quickly and efficiently the stage hands reset the stage for different performer combinations. More often orchestras make these changes at a maddeningly casual pace. Get to the music!
3. Controversy (Word for August 31st)
Search Google for “orchestra controversy” and you see some stories about musician-management issues in the United States. It tends to be more interesting when it’s about other countries:
- Should Wagner’s music be performed in Israel?
- How should we respond to the Tehran Symphony Orchestras’ touring Europe with a Peace Symphony by Majid Entezami at a time the Iranian regime is executing dissidents?
- The City Council of Munich didn’t extend Christian Thielemann’s music directorship. Where government involvement is deep in music, what are the proper roles of politicians, orchestra and a strong-willed and brilliant chief conductor?
- Donald Rosenberg was transferred away from criticism of the Cleveland Orchestra. What’s the right relationship between a music critic, orchestra and the critic’s management?
- Individual European artists have protested war. In 2003 conductor Gerd Albrecht spoke to the audience between pieces of a Danish Radio Symphony performance, criticizing the Danish Parliament’s support of the Iraqi war. That same year, Jordi Savall canceled an American tour due to his opposition to the war. Pianist Krystian Zimerman stated from the stage that he no longer would play “in a country whose military wants to control the whole world.”
- When the New York Philharmonic performed in North Korea there was initial resistance from outside and from some musicians.
All these deal with fundamental issues. What’s disturbing is how short the list is, and what it doesn’t include.
Will we ever see a controversy about the music performed in an American orchestral concert again? I sure hope so. Doesn’t the lack of controversy for decades tell us we’re too cautious in programming music? Are we so fearful of donor backlash that as a whole industry we don’t perform anything that might offend someone? Why are we more cautious than theater, opera and ballet?
4. Timeliness (Word for August 30th)
Few pieces in the standard repertoire refer to current events and issues. I think of:
- John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls.
- Steve Reich’s City Life, based on found sounds of construction on the streets of New York.
- Most of George Crumb’s works.
- Berio’s Sinfonia, with its collage of Swingle-Singer texts and musical quotations.
- The whole body of electronic music.
Opera has historically embraced topical issues, in times of censorship by using analogies in period dramas. It continues that tradition with Adams’ Nixon in China and with contemporary staging of older operas.
Bernstein’s Mass, with its theater music and pop rock, got enormous attention for a few years, unimaginable in this time. Other works reflect our time in their style, such as the unquenchable energy of the music of Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Composers write for audiences as well as themselves. Why would they write for orchestras, when today a whole school of inoffensive compositions take up much of the meager offerings of 21st century music on stage? I’m no expert on new music, yet I hear enough to know that plenty of composers are writing for our time. I hear it, just not often in orchestra concerts.
There are other ways to be timely. We can embrace rather than reject popular culture. This can be difficult, since combining electric guitars with acoustic performance rarely succeeds. I tip my hat to my former employer, the Houston Symphony, which has developed every opportunity available to be topical:
- Playing an ingenious hip-hoppy introduction to the players at a recent NBA All-Star Game.
- Collaborating in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with The Art Guys. Mylar-covered LEDs under each performer’s chair were manipulated by computer in every imaginable color to reflect the music.
- Projecting close-ups of musicians on screens above stage. While expensive, some audiences expect this after decades of television concerts, rock concerts and sporting events with giant screens, and even large screens in megachurches. I originally found such screens distracting, but I love the ability to see musicians close up.
- Annually performing a pre-game concert at a Houston Astros baseball game, then playing the National Anthem.
- Remembering the Hurricane Katrina diaspora at a southside Houston megachurch, drawing 5,000 people.
- Collaborating in a Christmas concert and recording with Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. I initially cringed at the idea. I’ll never forget walking into the church with thousands of attendees who had never heard the Houston Symphony. The mood was excited, as if we were going to an athletic event. Indeed, the church was formerly the arena for the Houston Rockets.
- Performing in a concert with the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra remembering Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, few Houstonians remained in town for the concert, which coincided with the evacuation for Hurricane Rita.
- Developing a film of Holst’s Planets with new footage from NASA.
I see orchestras striving to be relevant to today’s age in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible a decade ago. I see less success in making that happen in the concert hall itself. Won’t it be an adventure to watch over the next decades? Because surely it will happen. Orchestras won’t die.
5. Boldness (Word for August 29)
We live in a world of death, injustice, torture, illness and despair. Then an orchestra performs Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The following week, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. Then Prokofiev’s Fifth, Schubert’s Fifth and so on.
I believe those pieces all speak to our world. Today. I also believe that we need to be bolder to bring the lens of music to all the sides of our world.
Yesterday I committed to write about that boldness. Then, as so often happens, life intervened in coincidence.
Last night I heard Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads, performed under the auspices of Houston’s Foundation for Modern Music. Ted Hearne conducted the musicians who had recorded the work and performed it at Le Poisson Rouge in New York on Tuesday. Film and videos from the disaster were projected on a scrim behind the soloists and in front of the orchestra. Texts were selected from news reports and documents of the New Orleans disaster. And Hearne’s music draws on a polyglot of sources of inspiration, from both popular and arts worlds.
Katrina Ballads hit on all cylinders. Indeed, it hit on all ten words of this series.
I was overcome by the piece’s music, words, video and the performance itself. Without consciously deciding to do it I found I was experiencing the work rather than analyzing it. I heard Katrina Ballads in a visceral way, much as I listened before my music training.
Hearne dazzled us when he sang “Brownie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job,” which bursts bits of sound like machine-gun fire. Other references included Dennis Hastert’s wondering whether to rebuild the city, the bridge to Gretna at which desperate people were turned back into New Orleans by armed police, Kanye West’s anger, and a heartbreaking interview with a man whose wife drowned in his presence.
How many orchestras would dare to host or perform Katrina Ballads? The context is unavoidably political. While I found the music immediately approachable, it’s also of our time. And preparing the piece would take far more effort than usual.
That’s what our world needs, though, as much as ever. That’s why orchestras exist. We have to choose to get past those hurdles.
6. Demands (Word for August 28)
It’s known that a high percentage of orchestra subscribers studied an instrument as a child. It took them work to gain in understanding music.
So let’s keep challenging them.
Conductor Hans Graf tells me that many orchestra programs are a constant diet of apple strudel. Let’s Americanize that: we offer a constant diet of apple pie. My local classical station plays a concert from a different orchestra each night; one week I heard three Tchaikovsky piano concertos. I cannot imagine loving the piece more than I, yet with each hearing there’s less meaning.
Familiarity is inversely proportional to import.
Audiences need to be confronted with music they don’t know and don’t know about. They need to be introduced to other types of meaning than they’ve already experienced for music to have life. After all, don’t we call the conductor a music director?
But wait, am I not a marketer? Won’t we drive away audiences? Won’t we make them angry?
Marketing is often mischaracterized as asking people what they want and giving it to them.
- People don’t know what they want. Their needs are driven by fundamental emotions that they then rationalize. The job of market research is to understand those deep wants.
- Organizations have needs, too, which we commonly call our mission. For orchestras that includes bringing the best music to their audiences. The music director is not only a performer but also a curator of the art of music. Programming must not be driven by the tallying of responses from a market survey.
I’m confident as a marketer that we can balance an audience’s hunger for well-known works with their need to grow as listeners. A constant diet of apple pie drives away audiences, too.
Museums have done a far better job than orchestras of bringing novel art to their visitors. We used to say, “like a museum,” and it meant dusty and arid. It’s no longer true. The museum world thrives in comparison to orchestras. Let’s similarly reinvent orchestras.
7. Showmanship (Word for August 27)
I’ve deliberately used a term that’s offensive to some. What I mean is a sense of performance, of projection to the audience.
Perhaps there are still musicians who consider themselves pure, living for the music alone. For me that’s bunk. The music is precious, yet what makes it holy is sharing it with other musicians and with audiences. And the physicality of an orchestra concert translates to listeners as much as the music itself.
It’s thrilling when a magnificent artist walks into view. I will always remember how Rudolf Serkin would trip onto stage with nervous excitement. Conductor Thomas Schippers led himself with his baton held high, his eyes to the stars. Once I saw him conduct the downbeat for a brilliant showpiece at the moment he landed on the podium. He broke through the complacency of the audience, then and always.
The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela transmits its passion to its audience every moment it’s on stage. When its strings sway together in sympathy with its upbows and downbows, our hearts break open in communion. Dancing to their famous Mambo encore, or throwing their Venezuelan windbreakers to the audience, they give all of themselves.
I felt the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Verbier Festival Orchestra played with fire when I last heard them. All too often, though, orchestral players lean against the back of their chairs. It hurts to see unengaged music-making.
When I first heard the Beaux Arts Trio, 40 years ago, the concord of their playing was reflected by the way they bowed in ensemble. In the orchestra world let’s similarly face the audience with purpose and acknowledge applause with a smile.
8. Spontaneity (Word for August 26)
Two weeks ago Steve Smith wrote in the New York Times that Jeremy Denk’s Berg Sonata “seemed conjured on the spot.” Jorge Bolet used to marvel how Josef Hofmann played as if he were improvising. Great conductors, too, create an atmosphere in which we hear music fresh no matter how familiar. More often than not, though, orchestra concerts lack a sense of creation.
Gabriela Montero frequently improvises her encores. And I’ve told countless friends about an improvisation by my former Indiana classmate, David Schrader of Chicago. David finished an all-Widor organ recital with a tour de force. He was given a theme on the spot in a sealed envelope, then improvised a chorale prelude and fugue on that theme. In the style of Widor!
There’s plenty of music written for orchestra that creates the space for improvisation. Other music lets chance dictate the action. When was the last time you heard any of it performed?
A very few conductors bring a breezy style to audience talks that makes for spontaneity. While MTT comes to mind, I’ve never seen anyone better at that than Raymond Leppard in Indianapolis. More often you wish they’d start the music.
Isn’t this supposed to be fun? At how many orchestra concerts do you feel the joy of discovering music you had as a child?
9. Variety (Word for August 25)
There are many varieties. Here I’ll discuss how orchestras miss opportunities to vary the ensemble on stage. Nineteenth century concerts featured orchestral, chamber and solo performances side by side. We can cook with that spice now.
- Concert versions of operas don’t take on the expense and difficulty of staging yet bring fresh sounds into the hall. I particularly remember a Walküre with Eileen Farrell and Jess Thomas in Cincinnati.
- Much of the best music written over the last fifty years is for wholly original combinations. Only a small number of audience members hear these pieces by attending specialty new music ensemble performances. Limiting performances to full orchestral pieces limits the frame of experiences for audiences.
- The 20th-century chamber orchestra repertoire is rich yet unused by many larger orchestras. I loved hearing Jeffrey Kahane play and conduct the Paul Whiteman version of Rhapsody in Blue in Houston, albeit on a separate chamber-orchestra series. Milhaud’s La creation du Monde and Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto were also on the delightful program. Perhaps large-city mainstream orchestras wouldn’t be so often challenged by alternative chamber orchestras if they embraced this repertoire.
- Two other Houston experiences come to mind as well. In the first, the brass section performed Gabrieli canzoni from opposing sides of the second audience level in a nod to St. Mark’s in Venice. In the second, Hans Graf surprised the audience before a Bruckner symphony with a Bruckner a cappella choral motet, the chorus singing from the balcony. This paved the way for the audience to listen to the symphony with a tender heart.
One argument against smaller ensembles is that “audiences expect a full orchestra for their money.” Yet I’ve never heard a listener express that disappointment.
10. Risk (Word for August 24)
When was the last time you heard an orchestra wrestle with music? When did you last wonder whether they were up to the task? The music I remember most fondly involved risk-taking in performance.
- Two very different pianists, Vladimir Horowitz and Rudolf Serkin, pushed their playing to the limits of human possibility. Both were fiendishly well-prepared, yet the music-making was always on the edge. Think of Horowitz’ recording of the Rachmaninoff Third late in life; bushels of wrong notes only add to the riot of heat.
- André Previn’s 1973 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra of the second movement Scherzo from Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony takes such a breakneck pace that you wonder how it’s possible.
- Whenever I’ve seen Gustavo Dudamel conduct, live or on television, I’m in suspense. Will the orchestra be able to follow his abandon in expression? His direction is clear, but his expectations are infinite.
A few days ago I saw a remarkable 1936 Mexican film, ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! or Let’s Go with Pancho Villa! Directed by Fernando de Fuentes, whom the New York Times described as “the Mexican John Ford,” the film was listed as #1 of the finest 100 movies made in Mexico. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston screened Villa in a beautiful newly-restored 35mm print. The music was written by Silvestre Revueltas and performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, said to be the second-oldest orchestra on the continent after the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
I don’t know how good the orchestra was in 1936, nor do I know how much rehearsal time they gave Revueltas’ music. Some rapid oscillating trumpet scales would challenge any orchestra in the world, even today. It certainly challenged the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional in the 30s. Yet it made the music’s dance rhythms and multi-tonality even more engaging to hear them as if an orchestra in a club were playing them, perhaps improvising them as they went along.
In contrast, orchestras today avoid performance risk of any sort. A few years ago one of the finest orchestras in the world canceled a performance of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite because it found it too difficult to play in rehearsal. Wouldn’t it be better if they’d postponed it, practiced individually and together more, and then performed it?
What do you miss at today’s orchestra concerts?